Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Where there’s a will…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

“They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.”

sycamore rowSeth Hubbard was dying of terminal cancer and in extreme pain, so it was not altogether surprising that he had chosen to end his own life. Much more surprising was that, the day before, he had handwritten a new will, leaving the bulk of his substantial fortune to his black housekeeper and specifically cutting out his own children and grandchildren. He had also left clear instructions that he wanted Jake Brigance to be the legal representative for his estate and to fight any challenges to the will ‘to the bitter end.’

This book takes up the story of Jake Brigance three years after the end of the Carl Lee Hailey trial (A Time to Kill). Jake still hasn’t recovered financially from the loss of his house, and the expected rush of clients after the Hailey trial hasn’t materialised. So the idea of a case like this, with a guaranteed generous hourly rate for his work, strongly appeals. And when it becomes clear that Seth’s family intend to throw everything they have into challenging the will it looks like it’ll be a long case. Jake’s determined to take the dispute before a jury, mainly because he loves the thrill of a court appearance.

The question of why Seth would have left such a will is a matter of hot debate, with the majority view being that Lettie Lang must have been something more to him than just a housekeeper. But Lettie seems as bewildered as everyone else and maintains that their relationship was never more than that of employer and employee. So Jake’s old boss, Lucien, and Lettie’s daughter Portia set out to investigate the past…

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Grisham shows all his usual skill in this book – a great first chapter that hooks the reader straight away, an interesting plot, strong characterisation and the suspense of a jury trial with both sides pulling unexpected ambushes at the last moment. As in A Time to Kill, race is a major theme – the general feeling that Seth should not have cut out his own children is compounded by a belief amongst some of the white people that no black person deserves to have been left so much money. Greed figures prominently too – the greed of Seth’s unloving children scrambling for their share, Lettie being inundated with requests for help from relatives she wasn’t even aware she had, and, not least, the greed of the lawyers all trying to manipulate the case so that they get a healthy cut of the proceeds of the estate.

There is a but, though. Which is that, enjoyable and well-written as this is, it has nothing like the depth or impact of A Time to Kill. Something very strange has happened to Ford County in the last three years – attitudes have changed so dramatically that it seems as if the gap is more like the 24 years that actually exists between the two books. Here, not only is there no threat of the Ku Klux Klan and no real fear of race-related violence, but even the language has changed. In my review of the first book, I mentioned the frequent use of the n-word, which generally puts me off reading a book, but which in this case seemed relevant to the story. Three years on, not only do people not use that word any longer, but Portia is actually shocked by it on the one occasion it comes up. What happened in those three years to entirely change the culture and attitudes of this small town?

a time to killIt’s obvious that Grisham has projected modern sensibilities back onto his characters. I can see why he’s done it – readers today are even less likely to accept the kind of blatantly racist language and attitudes that would have just about been tolerated in the eighties. But it means this book doesn’t have the power or authenticity of the first – it’s all rather sanitised. And it means the fear and racial tension of the first book is almost entirely missing from this one. I’m sure it wouldn’t have struck me so much if I hadn’t read the two books back to back, but I couldn’t help feeling that this would have worked better if Grisham had set it ten or fifteen years later so that we were dealing with a different generation.

However, as a standalone, this is a very readable and enjoyable story. The twists were a bit obvious, I thought, meaning that the ending didn’t have as much surprise value as I feel Grisham intended, and the last chapter was pretty saccharin even for Grisham, as well as seeming a bit too rushed and neat. But the quality of the writing, the characterisation and the contrast of darkness and humour mean that this still stands up well as one of Grisham’s better books, leaving me hoping he will revisit Ford County and Jake Brigance again in the future.

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19 thoughts on “Sycamore Row by John Grisham

  1. FictionFan – Grisham is so talented at legal thrillers like this one isn’t he? And I know exactly what you mean about the power of A Time to Kill. It’s interesting that you’ve picked up on that point about what life is like in Ford County now. It’s very hard to write an historical novel and really depict the attitudes without either offending modern readers or being anachronistic. Still, Grisham is so good at telling a story and keeping the pace going…


    • In hindsight, reading ‘A Time to Kill’ immediately before this one wasn’t the best decision – it highlighted the changes in tone too starkly. But Grisham is always readable, and the Ford County characters are an interesting bunch. I’ll be interested to see if he continues with them.


  2. It does sound like a good read–even if something catastrophic caused a dialect change in only a few years. The professor would enjoy the court scenes the most, I think. I always like reading a good debate. Reminds me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Much better picture this time, btw. He actually doesn’t look smug.


    • I suspect it was an alien invasion – in America, aliens probably would seem quite normal. I wonder if aliens can spell? 😉

      The setting is like To Kill a Mockingbird, but the plot of the first book was closer to that feel. One of my favourite books, by the way (though I shouldn’t say that for fear you will now rip it!).

      I’m glad you noticed! Took me ages to find one where he looks likeable – 99.9% of all his pics show him smirking. Yucketh!


      • Not everyone in America is like the professor, you know. I wonder if aliens try to stick lousy ‘u’s in words where they don’t belong! (The professor might–might, mind you–stick out his tongue if it was a professorish thing to do, but it’s not.)

        Won’t do it! Love that novel to bits. I think I’m like Boo. Anyway, the professor is proud to announce that he will be reviewing one of his favorite books of all time. (Probably makes the top 3.) Won’t be a ripio.

        Yes, yucketh! I wonder why he likes to smirk. Could be cursed with it.


        • 😆 The Professor is sounding a little annoyed! Please don’t stick out your tongUe, dear C-W-W – it would spoil the effect of your glorioUs walk…

          Yay! I’m deeply relieved! While I love Boo, the Professor seems more like Jem to me. I want to be Atticus but I suppose I’ll have to settle for Scout.

          Well, this is hugely exciting!! Do I get a hint as to which book? Is it something I’ll have read? When? When??


          • Fine then. The professor shan’t stick out his tonge, and so his glorios walk won’t be…jeopardized. ( 😀 )

            Jem? Dadblameit! If the professor was attacked, he would kill the perpetrator! (But Jem is adventurous like the professor.)

            I’m not sure if you’ve read it. The professor would bet not. Do you want to know, or a surprise? (You’ll probably hate it.)


            • 😀

              Jem was also very brave, leaping to Scout’s defence! Just like the Professor would…

              Hmm – I don’t know whether I want to know or not. On the one hand, I really want to know now…and on the other hand I really want it to be a surprise. Tricky! Don’t tell me, but give me a hint – why do you think I’ll probably hate it?

              How’s the game going, by the way? Or, by the time you read this, I should say how did the game go? (I looked at the current score, but sadly don’t know what it means 😳 ) Go, Sox!


            • Yes, I would! (Especially if it was FEF!)

              Hint: Three separate shorter stories that make one large story. Not much of a hint, I know.

              The Sox won 6 to 1, which means they won the World Series! 😀 Thanks for having interest, FEF. (Don’t be embarrassed. Not too long ago, neither would have the professor.)


            • I’m glad they won – I didn’t like to mention that I’m a notorious jinx…not only do the people I support usually lose, but they quite often break a leg or something too…

              I will attempt to use my psychic powers on this most witchy of evenings… CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy? Now don’t go all professorish on me and refuse to say yay or nay…or Tuppence and I will prepare a special Halloween curse…


  3. Wow, if that’s the opening to the book, it’s fantastic! I wonder if Grisham was pressure to sanitize. Also, I wonder if the second book had a different editor. So many factors come into play.


    • Good, innit? It’s one of his great skills – fantastic first chapters. If only his last chapters were as good…he tends to go for sickly sweet endings.

      Yes, he may well have been put under pressure, though if someone as successful as Grisham isn’t allowed to write the way he wants, what hope is there for anyone else? Not that I’m standing up for racist language (in fact, I’ve given up on books before on that ground) but it did give a raw edge to A Time to Kill which was missing from this one.


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